When the plane of deposed Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali touched down in Jeddah in January 2011, the Saudi monarchy’s worst nightmare re-emerged. Ben Ali was a close personal friend of then Saudi strongman, the late Saudi Crown Prince and longtime Interior Minister Naif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. For the Saudi monarchs, seeing two personal friends, Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, deposed in quick succession was certainly frightening.
Until 1953, Saudi Arabia was surrounded entirely by monarchies ruling in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and of course in the gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and UAE. Since then, however, the region’s monarchies have steadily declined, giving way to more inclusive forms of government inspired by republican principles.
This is bad news for the Saudi monarchs. The Saudi goal in the region is to see weaker and more dictatorial governments, preferably monarchies like the KSA. This principle applies even when these governments are driven by sectarian forces such as the Shia, a sect of Islam traditionally deplored by the Saudi branch of Salafism. In 1963, Saudi Arabia supported the Yemeni Shia Zaidi Imam Bader against the secular revolutionaries backed by Egypt.
“Young Saudis have now started to dream of becoming elected prime ministers and even presidents.” – Ali Al-Ahmed
Saudi Arabia remains the largest surviving absolute monarchy in the Middle East. The longevity of the al-Saud monarchy has led some to advocate for a “Saudi Model” of government and policies, ostensibly to ensure stability and continuity. There is no doubt that the Saudi monarchy has thus far been able to navigate the treacherous waters of the Middle East largely unscathed, due to both its wealth and its strong, nearly unconditional, Western backing.
Today, however, the situation is changing. The leaderless upheaval of the Arab Spring has changed cultural and even religious norms. Among the most important changes are people’s expectations and perceptions of their rulers and their designated positions and roles. The old belief that a ruler can do whatever he wishes as long as he speaks in favor of the faith is no longer valid.
The Arab Spring has brought another model to the region that will prevail for the foreseeable future. Love it or hate it, the Muslim Brotherhood model is here to stay and it will take hold across the region, including in the Gulf monarchies. It appeals to a sizable portion of youth in the region, especially in the Gulf, which has not been willing to share power and wealth with broader society. It is a model based on religion and ideology rather than bloodline.
Young Saudis have now started to dream of becoming elected prime ministers and even presidents. The religious cover that provided backing for the absolute monarchy is now collapsing and is being replaced by the view that correctly views monarchical rule as un-Islamic. This week, the Emirati government announced the trial of religious activists who aimed to replace the absolute monarchies.
The Muslim Brotherhood model – Sunni, Arab, religious, and embracing some democratic views – strikes fear in the heart of al-Saud and other ruling families in the Gulf. It is a more horizontal political system and more accessible to the average citizen, while the monarchies are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite. The Brotherhood, by contrast, appeals to millions of unsatisfied youths who see members of ruling families dominating most aspects of social and economic life in their countries. The increasing size of the ruling families is working against them as it limits their options and capacity to co-opt the people by sharing part of the wealth and power. With the aging and expanding ruling family, it will be almost impossible to protect power with a busy courtyard of princes vying for top seats and petrodollars.
The Saudi model is finding fewer and fewer buyers among the political classes in the region. The current odds favor the Muslim Brotherhood, who unlike any other group, enjoy considerable support on the streets across the region.
This post was originally published under a similar headline on Fikra Forum.
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Ali Al-Ahmed is the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs based in Washington, DC. He is a Saudi political activist and analyst on Saudi Arabia and Gulf political issues.